The Principal Principle

It's 7:15 in the morning and Al Penna has already been on the job for an hour. Standing in the gated entryway of Binghamton High School in upstate New York, the veteran principal—about to celebrate his 60th birthday—greets hundreds of bleary-eyed teens by name. "How are we today, Louis?" "Good morning, Chris!" "Congratulations on the win, Jennifer!" During the next few hours, Penna presides over meetings on school safety and senior awards, signs a contract for graduation photos and handles staff complaints about crackling walkie-talkies. He visits one class aimed at keeping potential dropouts in school and another where the assignment is to read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. He checks in on students laboring over the state's yearly English as a Second Language (ESL) exam. "Kurdistan," he says, quietly pointing to one student, and then, "Somalia, Eastern Europe, a few from Puerto Rico." He even happily chows down on his favorite cafeteria lunch: gravy-doused roast beef on white bread with mashed potatoes and corn on the side.

At almost every stop, Penna points out how Binghamton and the high school have changed since he walked these same hallways as a student in the 1960s. There's a new and much more diverse population with increasing numbers of low-income and foreign-born students, growing community pressure to guarantee college- or work-ready graduates and a blizzard of government-mandated tests that gobble up an ever-larger chunk of the school day. Getting kids from freshman year to graduation has never been tougher. Penna knows that even that often-elusive diploma isn't enough anymore. Some postgraduate schooling has become essential to earning a middle-class income; that means adding higher-level courses like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) program to an already packed curriculum in order to prepare students for college.

So much goes into making a high school great: excellent teaching, vibrant student populations, creative classes, strong extracurriculars. The NEWSWEEK Challenge Index measures one: the number of IB and AP tests students take. But just as important is the person who leads the school. Good principals may seem unlikely superheroes—unless you're a student, teacher or parent. They set the tone for what happens from the moment the opening bell rings and can turn a troubled school around with a combination of vision, drive and very hard work. It's a 24/7 job. "Schools aren't just about just reading, writing and arithmetic anymore," says Penna. "School faculties now have the additional roles of mentor, adviser and quasi parent."

Principals also have to be politicians, crisis managers, cheerleaders, legal experts, disciplinarians, entertainers, coaches and persuasive evangelists for their school's educational mission. Add to that already daunting list the task of statistician, thanks to reams of data required by the federal No Child Left Behind law and local testing. "Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in data," says Jill Martin, the principal of Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., who won the 2007 Principal of the Year title from the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Who can fill that intimidating job description? "It certainly helps to be somebody who doesn't need a lot of sleep," jokes Martin, 61, who, like Penna, routinely works 12- and 14-hour days and makes sure to show up at school plays and games on weekends. Endless energy does seem to be a requirement, as does a talent for getting the best out of a large team. "It no longer works to be the dictator or the sage on the stage," says Martin. "You have to be a leader of instructional leaders. You have to be someone who can really motivate people to go the extra mile because the job of a teacher is far more difficult and complex than when I started teaching." A good principal has to be up to speed on constantly expanding education research and know how to apply the latest data. Above all, says Martin, you have to be someone who understands teenagers' needs. Although the demands of the school have changed in her 38 years as an educator, Martin says kids are the same: "They still want someone to care about them. The principal has to be someone who really loves kids and understands what it takes to motivate teachers to change every child's life."

Finding those leaders is harder than ever. Many baby boomers, who now hold the majority of the jobs, are retiring in the next few years. Other veteran principals are leaving because of school reform or restructuring efforts or simply because they no longer want to do the work. It's estimated that in some areas, 60 percent of principals will leave their positions in the next five years. That's why there's a new focus on finding and training the best of the next generation for these jobs, including recruits from other fields. These efforts range from New York City's privately subsidized Leadership Academy to mentorship programs in districts around the country. A recent report by researchers from Stanford University and the Finance Project, a public-policy group, found that the most effective programs actively recruited candidates, provided instruction from expert principals and included well-supervised internships.

Pay is also a major hurdle—as it is for teachers. Given the requirements of their jobs, successful principals probably have the skills to earn considerably more in the private sector. A recent study from the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that although administrators' salaries are increasing, they do not match the change in the consumer price index. According to the survey, high-school principals earned an average of $92,965 in 2006.

To find out more about the special pressures of running a successful high school today, NEWSWEEK talked to Penna and four other school leaders around the country. These are their very different stories.

Motivating the Team
For Doris Jackson, 60, principal of Wakefield High School, the nationally acclaimed revitalization of her mostly minority school in Arlington, Va., is a team effort. It began with her predecessor, a saxophone-playing former nun named Marie Shiels Djouadi, who insisted that challenging courses like AP were not just for middle-class students. Jackson, then the head counselor, took over when her friend retired and helped an aggressive team of teachers and counselors raise standards even higher.

Wakefield's Cohort program—same-sex clubs for boys and, more recently, girls, who share tips on dealing with demanding courses—is unique in the Washington area. Senior year ends with a special project—an internship, a scientific paper, a musical presentation, something that requires great effort outside class. It's the only public school in the Washington area to have such a graduation requirement. Wakefield teachers say the successful imposition of private-school standards in a public school full of poor kids stems from Jackson's faith in her staff. "She lets teachers lead," says Delores Bushong, gifted/talented coordinator. An example is the school's one-week summer program, designed by teachers to persuade students to try the best Wakefield offers, such as AP classes.

College for All
The Preuss public charter school at the University of California, San Diego, admits only low-income students whose parents did not graduate from college. That is a rare thing in American high schools, as is the Preuss principal, Doris Alvarez—still at the top of her game at 70. Preuss (rhymes with choice) began in 1999 when several UCSD faculty, including Bronx-born music professor Cecil Lytle, created the school to bring students from poor families up to University of California standards after UC admission preferences for minorities were outlawed. Alvarez had a great track record with disadvantaged students at Hoover High School in San Diego and had been named National High School Principal of the Year in 1997. She put AP courses at the center of her curriculum at Preuss and hired teachers who gave students the encouragement and extra time they needed to master the material.

Graduating senior Rose Cao says Preuss proves that "money and skin color do not define intelligence." Students endure bus rides up to 90 minutes long from low-income south San Diego to the school's modern two-story building at UCSD in affluent La Jolla. The school has 756 students in sixth to 12th grades. About 59 percent are Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 13 percent black and 6 percent white. More than 90 percent of graduating seniors go to four-year colleges, the rest to two-year schools. "Every student knows why they are here, to get ready for college," Alvarez says. It is one of the few public schools requiring every student to take AP courses and tests in U.S. history, U.S. government, English language, English literature, biology and chemistry. "Some students may say this system makes the unprepared students suffer and harms their grades," Cao says. "It actually gives every student the equal opportunity to be challenged and excel."

An Open Door
Ying Hua had been in the United States a short time when Roy Sunada, the AP coordinator at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena, Calif., asked if she would like something tougher than the program for English learners. She nodded yes, then wavered when her first two European-history writing assignments from Sunada were totally beyond her. Sunada—determined to help all kids realize their potential—looked at her blank paper and told her not to worry. "Give yourself a try," he said. Ying went on to pass 13 AP exams, a school record, and win a Morehead scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "There were many times when I almost wanted to give up," she says, "but knowing that Mr. Sunada is always there believing in me offered me strength."

Marshall, where most of the students are from low-income families, had only 37 AP exams with passing scores in 1997 when Sunada, born in a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans, became coordinator. Last year it had 163, and Sunada wants that number higher. His open-door policy on AP has not been popular with everyone, says AP calculus and statistics teacher Eric Mulfinger, but "even when the system didn't believe that poor or disadvantaged kids could succeed at high academic levels, Roy did."

Now an assistant principal at the school, Sunada, 61, is criticized for Marshall's low passing rate on the exams, about 26 percent, the result of letting everyone try the courses and tests. He says the faculty is working on that, but even students who struggle and fail in AP become much better prepared for college. Sunada, says Ying, "has opened the doors to many students, including myself, who would not have a chance otherwise."

No Frills, and a Future
YES Prep's name, small size and strong AP program suggest a prestigious private school. Instead it is a public school, a hard-to-find collection of old portable classrooms on a horse farm in southeast Houston. The school has no gym. The basketball court is out on the parking lot. "My favorite fund-raising line is, we are the only basketball team that gets practice rained out," says founder Chris Barbic.

Barbic, 37, was a partying frat boy at Vanderbilt, looking for a purpose in life, when he tried volunteering at a neighborhood center in a poor part of Nashville. He found that he loved working with low-income children, and loved teaching, particularly the thrill of creating his own school. At YES Prep, 78 percent of the students in the sixth- through 12th-grade school are from low-income families. Now the head of four YES Prep schools in Texas, Barbic started with just a sixth grade at a Houston elementary school with a terrible reputation. Parents saw how much more their children were learning, through projects and energetic teaching as well as a longer school day. They showed up several hundred strong for a series of key meetings that won official approval for Barbic to get his own campus, and grow.

Students cannot get a diploma at YES unless they take at least one college-level course in the high school and get into at least one four-year college. Like Teach for America, Barbic recruits recent grads to teach at YES schools. One of his new faculty members is Patricia Hernandez, a 2006 Stanford graduate, who five years ago was valedictorian of YES's first graduating class. Says Barbic: "She is a living, breathing example of what we are trying to do."

Coming Home
Al Penna thought he would be a doctor when he graduated from Syracuse University in 1969, but his 3.2 average didn't make the grade. Instead, he became a science teacher and then a principal at his alma mater, where he found his true calling. "I had to take a U-turn," he says. "It led me back to Binghamton, where my roots are." During his 15 years as principal, Penna saw his own three kids graduate from the school (one son now teaches there), along with thousands of others whose lives had already taken U-turns. A small city in the old rust belt, Binghamton experienced job losses and increasing numbers of low-income families. A wave of immigration brought students from 26 countries. Because of these challenges, Penna is proud that he has worked hard to get as many students as possible into his school's IB programs and other college-level courses in order to prepare them for further education. No matter where they come from, Penna wants his students to know that school is their sanctuary. "This is a place that can transform your life," he says. If he had been a doctor, Penna says, he would have been a cardiologist. But as a principal, he's truly speaking from his heart.